In the 90s, I worked as a computer support person in a small Vermont elementary school where we introduced both reluctant and enthusiastic teachers to the wonders of teaching with computers. From the arrival of the High Performance Computer Act in 1991 to the Clinton-Gore administration's successful creation of numerous intiatives to provide funds for schools to gain access to the Internet, a sea change washed across our small school. Teachers and students suddenly had access to laser printers, scanners, state-of-the-art Macintosh computers, and, most importantly, the Internet.
We were so caught up in dealing with the practical issues of this brand-new technology that pedagogy was hardly considered. However, as the technology stabilized and teachers gained some training, things changed. Teachers could begin to use the technology as a matter of course. The dominant narrative named the computer as one of an army of possible tools. Accepting this narrative meant that teachers used the computer in a way congruent with their previously established pedagogical philosophies: for some it was a top-down assignment, for example, designing a newsletter following extremely specific guidelines and rules, which used the computer as a rather more advanced copier. For others, this meant a random, sometimes wild exploration of what internet sites had to offer and then applying whatever came up, in an attempt to meet the principal’s expectations. For a smaller group, used to constructivist concepts, this meant allowing the children themselves to find ideas, resources, and ways of knowing through technology and teachers and children together working to translate these into new pedagogical practices. The computer was a tool like a pencil, and the users determined its path. The assumption of neutrality still informs how we think about computers and their software.
The computer –mediated composition classroom, chugging along a parallel track, has evolved into accepted practice. Most of the time, computers work. Most of the time, instructors have enough training to get by. First year composition students typically use word processing, e-mail, and internet browsers regularly. (In fact, most of us find that there are always one or two or more students who are more technologically adept than we are.) However, the blithe, naïve narrative defining computers as just another tool has been successfully contested. The first interrogation of this narrative was tentative: how does word processing affect writing abilities, asked numerous investigators in the 1980s. Hawisher and Selfe note the limitations of this interrogation: “Unfortunately the question has often been framed too simplistically as: “What is the effect of computers on writing quality?” which attributes far too much power to computers rather than to how writers or literacy teachers might use computers” (“Reflections on Computers and Composition Studies” 5). In fact, no tool is neutral. Its makers embed values within it which determine the nature of that transformation and transformative properties can be properly defined only when we examine these values.
In this paper, I argue that the dominant word processor in the field, Microsoft Word, employs an identifiable rhetoric in which literacy is constrained; success measured by word counts, defaults, templates, spellchecking and grammar tools which apply formulae to writing, contesting and constricting the space for creative grammatical rhythms, word music, or individuality.
The pedagogy of the composition classroom depends upon cultural constructions of literacy. As Hobbs argues, effective literacy – “the power to act in society” contrasts with literacy as “a means of social control” (1). Literacy, ipso facto, depends upon language deployment. If we think of language as neutral, we are less likely to accept that true education, whether directed towards illiterate, poor farmworkers or middle-class, educated first year college students demands critical thinking, what Freire calls “..thinking which perceives reality as a process, a transformation, rather than as a static entity” (92).
Similarly, If we think of real knowledge – whatever that might be -- as untainted by ideology, we accept that an educator’s responsibility is to impart that knowledge neutrally. However, Mikhail Bakhtin powerfully argues otherwise. Writing about the novel, Bakhtin nonetheless defines essential features of language relevant to the composition classroom. He explains:
Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker’s intentions; it is populated – overpopulated—with the intentions of others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one’s own intentions and accents is a difficult and complicated process (pp. 349-350).
Language saturated with ideology and a particular world view cannot be usefully deployed without comprehension of its values and boundaries. The ideological nature of language, and thus, literacy, disputes notions of a neutral, stable mass of knowledge. Educators are not technicians tweaking vast, obedient machines nor, as Freire has described, is their mission to deposit sheaves of knowledge into eager slots. Education means analysis – a continuous, recursive process. Indeed, the transformative classroom in which true literacy work is accomplished is a public space in which values and boundaries are named, examined, and interrogated.